Book Review: Pistols and Petticoats
Pistols and Petticoats: 75 Years of Lady Detectives in Fact and Fiction
by Erika Janik
Beacon Press, April 2016
(e-galley via Edelweiss)
I knew when I read the description that this book was going to be in my sweet spot: a historical survey of women as authors and characters of mystery novels. So, putting a genre of books I love (mystery and historical mystery) into a frame I can’t get enough of (social history). And, as expected, it was fascinating, and packed with information.
Pistols and Petticoats is packed with trivia about female sleuths and the writers who created them, many of whom I didn’t know. And better still, it’s not just a survey of the literary mystery landscape, but gets into some of the history of women’s real-world roles in mystery solving: beginning to work as social workers for the welfare of women and children, seeking and taking jobs in law enforcement, the social pressures and discrimination they faced as they rose through the ranks.
Whether dealing with detectives in fiction or history, Janik’s conversational writing style works well: offering short vignettes to evoke the detectives, biographical detail about authors, and most delightful of all, some solid historical and social context to explain how the books and the authors fit into the larger scope of women’s roles at the time. It was an education in the early history of mystery writing and popular fiction, full of authors and stories I’d absolutely never heard of, even though I like to think I’m well-read in the mystery genre. Turns out, I could use an education in the classics, and this book would be a good starting point.
The way the book detailed how female mystery protagonists were received when they were first published, and how the sleuths and authors did, or didn’t fit with women’s expected roles and power dynamics for their time and context delighted me. Also, the parallel history of women’s roles, and society’s imagery of those roles, in law enforcement. Noting that women’s potential for acceptance and advancement was slowly gained and hard-won, as well as complicated by social perceptions of women as nurturers or weaker than men isn’t new analytical territory, nor did Janik present it as such. The book draws strength from the extensively researched and detailed account, as well as from setting up the parallels between female crime solvers in fact and fiction.
Reading about the evolving tensions between characterizing real-life policewomen as maternal, sympathetic forces of virtue and competent, smart women capable of solving crimes enriched the experience of reading about the fictional female detectives. I expect it’s also going to have a lasting effect on my subsequent reading and watching. Covering what’s currently being written with the same clear, structured analysis as she wrote about the historical sleuths, Janik brings up some of my favorite characters: Miss Phryne Fisher, Rizzoli and Isles. Having covered female sleuths in fact and fiction so comprehensively and cogently, Janik has enriched how I’m going to see and consume mystery media and look at female characters more critically. This is going to be fun.
Usually, my sign that I love a book is that I zoom through it in under a week. The fact that I took over a month to read Pistols and Petticoats doesn’t mean I loved it any less. Because it’s densely packed with vignettes and information, I think this is a browsing book, more than a read-in-one-sitting book. The kind of thing a mystery fan wants on the nightstand or on the bookshelf to supplement, or read in tandem with mysteries.
A few chapters in, I started daydreaming about taking a class in the history of the mystery novel that used this as a textbook or a jumping-off point. Or using it as a guide for my own study and learning about earlier mystery books.
I definitely want a paper copy of this for easier browsing, and flipping around in footnotes. If I had been reading this on paper, it would be bristling with multicolored sticky-flags in the margins, or passages I underlined. I also want a paper copy for greater ease of sharing it with friends and family. I very seldom buy copies of books I review in e-galley but this is going to be an exception. I anticipate buying a few to give as gifts, too.